The value of bricks and mortar has risen at almost twice the rate of gold over
the past three-and-a-half years. The East End of London offers the highest
yields for Central London buy-to-let investments. At 9.15% East End residential
investment properties yield a fifth more than the capital's average.
Wherever are stretching, what estate agents call “fashionable loft style new build
developments” end up ”increasing the acceptability of the area”. Estate agents and
developers, who market gentrification as an appetizing and profitable proposition,
notoriously don’t sell you a few square meters insalubriously surrounded by thin
walls, but a lifestyle: the experience of living in the midst of the East End dangerous
past, the it-has-that-villagey-community-feeling-about-it and all the amenities the
perfect city dweller with more disposable income than brains aspire to.
The principle followed is still slum clearances. In postwar East London whole families
were moved from Bethnal Green, Shadwell, Stepney and Hackney further east, to
make place for new working class accommodation. This time the clearance gives
way not to council tower blocks, but to an overall conversion to middleclass
conformity of taste and acceptable décor.
The system is trite: pricing people out. But the goal has never been so strikingly
pursued: the transformation of the city into a playground for the rich, Manhattan-
style. Pushed out of the land, when will the peasants revolt?
Of course, the East End is now portrayed as one of the hip and trendy parts of
London. Yes. It is changing fast. This is repeated by artists, social commentators,
journalists, estate agents and property developers alike. And residents, if anyone
bother to listen to their voice. On one side, there is the TimeOut school of thought
with its “East is the New West” trendification drivel. Tens of millions of pounds are
thrown into redevelopment, at trying to bring the Olympics to London, at turning every
facets of individuality into corporate-botoxified zones. On the other, there is a reality
of deprivation, submerged racism and exploitation, poor housing and lack of
opportunities, gangland crime and social need cohabiting with the
media/art/fashion/etc industries that have been steadily colonizing the area. Right in
the middle of the gentrified zone there is landscape that does not appear on the
glossy brochures of the estate agents. Yet, it refuses to go away. And the
“multicultural” and “cosmopolitan” adjectives evoked to describe the “vibrancy” of the
territory, are a worn out veneer no longer able to disguise the mixture of apartheid,
invisible war and social segregation between Bengali (over a third of Tower Hamlets
borough’s 196,000 population), Afro Caribbean (around 6%), white and all the
“others” that do no fit the labels. The divisions are geographically stark, income-
based, racially oriented.
Gentrification and the pockets of self-referential affluence it brings to the East End
may be heralded as urban regeneration. But this cannot take the attention away from
the reality. The point is not only that gentrification squeezes people out by bringing in
price-rise, a sanitized urbanscape and a law-abiding atmosphere. The undesirable
are moved further and deeper, they are removed from the eyes, drawn in the inner
city ghettos or pushed to the city’s extreme reaches. But not everybody leaves, much
to the displeasure of developers and landlords. They are here, but become invisible,
their existence ignored, in parallel to the affluent inflated property gentry. The point is
therefore not gentrification per se. Gentrification is the very visible manifestation of an
ideological ingrained structure that envelops and rules the entire world. An ideology
of greed and profit and exploitation where creation and freedom have no space if not
for providing prime resources of consumption.
I wondered where the word gentrification came from and I found out that to gentrify =
“renovate and improve so that it conforms to middle-class taste”. Even more
interesting, was to find out that gentry = “people of good social position, specifically
the class of people next below the nobility in position and birth”, a word that comes
from the Latin gentiles = “of the same clan”.
So, gentrification has to do with striving to conform, with pigeonholing, with occupying
the “right” social and topographical site, properly allocated by ancient laws of
proximity to the landowners or by birth. It is about a hierarchy that becomes
geography. Hence, it is about the ruling of a self-appointed ruling class rooted upon
something like your grand-grand-granddad taking the land off my grand-grand-
granduncle and being prized for it. It is about a law of social position and aspirational
uniformity. It is about everybody believing that this is the best system, so that they all
buy of their own accord into soft subjugation. It is about conversion, something that
smacks of abjuring individuality to embrace a creativity-flattening religion of prefab
design, of fenguishization of chaos, of homogeneity, conformity and fencing.
Above all, gentrification is about fracture and desegregation. Behind the veneer of
the converted workingman cottages the social conflict cannot but increase, as
steadily as the properties prices.
Mind your back garden door, Mr. New Buyer.
We could leave ours always open, you know.
…And yet..we all are implicated in this process. By moving into a derelict garage we
have set out a process whereby now - 5 years later - couples with steady incomes
and the desire to buy into a piece of trendy London find themselves to look for
properties off the Roman Road.
…A couple knocks on my door to view the property. My impression is that they
are bursting. They look over-keen, over-blonde, over-weight and, yes, over-
here. “Troubles with the kids around here?” Is the very first question they
apprehensively ask. “Never” - I say – “I have never had any trouble with the
kids…and if they gather in the mews to smoke a joint and misbehave I let them
be. I was a kid myself” . Nervous laughter all round.
It had to happen. The wave of arty-smarty blonde wooden floors, open plan kitchens
and live/work conversion of original shambolic chaotic freezing garrets has reached 6
Peary Place, Villakulla Cottage.
So be it. We are moving light like feathers than the weather can blow everywhere it
wants. We carry with us something that no estate agent or greedy landlord can take
off us or sell to somebody else, no matter how much they are prepared to pay.
Laughter and joy and the stars and the buzz of making an home out of a derelict
space, of seeing the hearth through the bricks and the rats, the total deliriously
exhilarating experience of building a house out of scrap, found objects and dreams
shared with friends, a home that grew like the city itself: chaotic, shambolic, slightly
toxic, seriously mutant, out of control, intended for incessant transformation.
Not for one moment have I thought that the city could be stopped. The city moves. It
is a shapeshifter. It grows under your feet like mushrooms. It rots away like discarded
meat. It festers. It blossoms. It shows you invisible pathways made of smells,
soundscapes and shadows. It leads you through mazes and labyrinths that have no
exit or Minotaur. The city multiplies, proliferates, decays, is reborn everywhere and
I have never seen anything more alive than this city. Its contours are changing.
Nothing stays the same. Witches become Hibiscus flowers. Cottages become a
passport to nomadism. Lines become curves. They break, they stop, they start, they
recompose. They fly.
Never for a moment have I thought that the city could stay still. I have seen it mutate
and change, season after season, with imperceptible movements and mind-blowing
earthquakes. I store the memories of all the stages, transitions and metamorphosis I
have witnessed; all is stored in my inventory of the transformation of in/organic
The city welcomes you like an irresistible carnivore plant that you transform yourself
into. Its beauty is total and it contains everything. It embraces you like a pillow, it
takes the shape of your thoughts, it lets you dream, it makes you see the future. It
surprises you, when around the corner the unexpected is expecting you; when time
travel is a reality and you see the ghosts that are becoming you.
This is the time to let some ghosts go and change address.